An estimated one in five school-aged children live with a mental health condition, yet the traditional school calendar is not always supportive to those facing mental health struggles. Without support, students face significant barriers to learning and are less likely to graduate from high school. What might the future of independent schools look like if leaders prioritized wellness above other aspects of the student experience?
This question was posed by school leaders from Baylor School, Skutt Catholic High School, Savannah Christian Preparatory School Christian Preparatory School and St. Paul's Episcopal School in the 2022 NBOA Annual Meeting Deep Dive session, “Business Leadership and the Future of Independent Schools: Exploring the ‘What If?’’” During their session, the presenters made the case for why independent schools are uniquely poised to offer a holistic approach to supporting young people, educators and school staff.
The cohort began by breaking down their combined mission statements into key words and found that “whole person” was the most commonly-held word or phrase. “When we looked at our mission statements, not one of them said the main goal was to win state championships or prioritize Ivy league admissions,” said Shawn Arrington of Baylor School. “Instead, our mission statements focus on what it means to equip students with tools and resources to face and overcome obstacles when they become adults, to become positive and contributing members of their community. Our research showed that parents of all political persuasions and socioeconomic status agreed with these statements.”
Taryn Clatanoff, vice president of finance at Skutt Catholic High School, outlined a few examples of “student-first” operational initiatives:
- Changing the start times of schools.
Research to date has shown that the recommended amount of sleep for adolescents is fundamentally different from those of adults and children. Starting school later in the morning has been shown to have a significant effect in the amount of sleep and reported grade point average of students, according to the American Educational Research Association. Schools should consider shifting start times closer to 9 a.m., with extra time in the morning put away for athletic practices so that late-night practices don’t keep students away from home, said Clatanoff.
For example, in 2020, in response to the pandemic, Skutt Catholic changed their start time from 7:45 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and saw fewer absences and tardiness. “Teachers were grateful for the increased time to prep in the morning, and parents said that they noticed changes in their students’ overall behavior,” said Clatanoff. The change also resulted in less reported accidents in the morning, with fewer new drivers navigating the streets during rush hour.
- Create extra summer classes to help students who need extra support.
- Create additional training for teachers in areas of mental health counseling and physical wellness, i.e., yoga.
- Implement “Wellness Wednesday,” in which all classes are held virtually to reduce student stress levels.
- Encourage teachers and administrators not to send emails over the weekends.
- Ensure that breaks are truly of stop of work for faculty and staff. Schools may want to consider moving to “mini breaks” through the year, rather than longer breaks over summer and winter holidays.
- Consider emerging calendar models.
In considering changes to typical school hours, the Leadership Academy cohort also urged schools to consider a four-day school week, with school occurring Monday-Thursday. According to a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, more than 1,600 U.S. school districts have adopted the model as of 2019-20. The study found that students in the four-day weeks spent significantly more time on school sports and on chores than did those in five-day weeks. The change also seemed to change some sleep patterns, with four-day elementary students reporting that they got more sleep and four-day secondary students saying that they felt much less tired than their counterparts in five-day systems.
“Schools should think outside the box and consider community involvement, alumni participation, business leaders and student voices while scheduling."
—Pam Andrews, St. Paul's Episcopal School.
Potential challenges to implementing this model include lack of buy-in, perceived lower standards, and a lack of training or available resources for faculty, since the four-day school week is still an emerging model. However, there are also potential cost benefits for schools. Studies suggest schools could produce savings of up to 5% of its total budget, mainly in transportation, operations and support-staff salaries, when moving to a shorter week.
Schools may also consider implementing longer lunch times, more breaks throughout the day and more opportunities for physical activity, as these behaviors are shown to increase overall student engagement and health. “Schools should think outside
the box and consider community involvement, alumni participation, business leaders and student voices while scheduling,” concluded Pam Andrews, chief financial and operating officer, of St. Paul's Episcopal School.